Brexit and bioethics

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EUOn 23 June 2016, Britons will make the most important political decision of a generation: we will determine whether Britain exits or remains in the European Union (EU).

The debate about the pros and cons of ‘Brexit’ and ‘Bremain’ will undoubtedly continue until polling day. It’s good for Christians to engage with political matters because God has ordained government. Hence, part of being a faithful Christian means being a faithful citizen of our nation, which entails seeking to make informed decisions at times like these. Doing so can be difficult, especially when lots of factors are at play. One of these is bioethics, a subject which many Christian voters have a keen interest in.

Bioethics is only a single, albeit important, factor to consider in our decision—it would be unwise to fail to consider other important aspects of the EU debate. It is a single but important piece of the Brexit puzzle which Christians must seek to resolve thoughtfully.

To further complicate matters, bioethics is a discipline at the intersection of several spheres of life (medicine, law, philosophy, politics etc.). This makes predictions about its future all-the-less certain. Despite this, it is still worth asking the question: ’what will be Brexit’s effect on bioethics?’

Firstly, let’s consider what would not change if Britain left the European Union. If Brexit were to happen, Britain would not leave the Council of Europe (CoE) because it does not come under the auspices of the European Union. This matters because it is under the purview of the CoE that the Committee on Bioethics (DH-BIO, formerly the Steering Committee on Bioethics) operates. The DH-BIO seeks to bring to bear in law the principles enshrined in the Convention of Human Rights and Biomedicine (the Oviedo Convention). It assesses new issues in light of these principles, and works to raise awareness about them an implement policies relating to them. If we leave the EU, Britain will still contribute in this influential bioethics forum. (We’ll see later that this might not be an entirely good thing, however).

Also under the banner of the CoE is the European Court of Human Rights. Though several of its judgments have been criticised, it has made some decisions which can be considered sound. For example, there is the famous case of Pretty v United Kingdom in which Diane Pretty appealed to the Court to allow her husband to assist her suicide without fear of prosecution. The Court ruled that assisted suicide was not consonant with the European Convention of Human Rights, and dismissed her appeal. Such judgments should be welcomed. Unfortunately, however, not every decision the court has made is as praiseworthy.

From a moral standpoint, it also seems strange that the Court should dismiss the appeal of Diane Pretty while three founding members of the CoE practise euthanasia/physician assisted suicide themselves (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg). Of course, this is because no citizen of these countries has brought such a case before the Court. One is left to wonder why no Christians have done this. (But perhaps this is more a lesson about actively engaging with the world as a Christian rather than a point about the EU).

What I have described above is unlikely to change drastically in the near future, even if Brexit takes places. So it’s worth noting that Britain will still have a say when it comes to bioethics—although how much and how helpful it will be is a different story (see below).

Now let’s consider what would change if we were to leave the European Union (EU). The EU has undergone numerous changes over the years. Today, its law-making part is the so-called ‘institutional triangle’, composed of the Council of the European Union, the European Parliament, and the European Commission.

Brexit would entail that we are no longer represented in the European Parliament, where we currently send our MEPs. This would have little influence on the state of bioethics because the European Parliament is generally not entitled to regulate such matters. Indeed, the EU has little power to regulate bioethics policy outside of a few matters of economic interest.

Brexit would also mean that Britain no longer has a seat on the European Commission (EC), the executive branch of the EU made up of appointed commissioners from each member states. In other words, the EC is a supra-national Cabinet. It’s the EC which has the power to propose new laws. If we lost our European commissioner, we would lose our influence here. But, as we will later see, this is not necessarily bad for bioethics. Moreover, since European commissioners are not elected, Britain’s influence in bioethics in the EC is largely dependent on a single individual. Moreover, a commissioner’s role in the EC might have very little to do with bioethics.

In spite of this, some EU initiatives have a salutary influence on bioethics. For example, there is the Directive on the Legal Protection of Biotechnological Inventions (1998) which acts as a disincentive for commercial research and investment into human cloning. Other directives affect medicines legislation and how clinical trials are conducted. Directives are binding on all EU member states (meaning that Brexit would unbind Britain from them). Whether one agrees or not that the EU should set such laws, these directives somewhat limit the development of concerning technologies and practices.

In summary, leaving the EU might modestly reduce Britain’s bioethical influence. But it is difficult to make confident conclusions on the subject. However, as previously suggested, reduced British influence on bioethics might be of benefit to other nations.

Britain has the most liberal bioethics policy in the world. A good example of this is the case of ‘three-parent embryos’: Britain was the first to permit this sort gamete manipulation. Britain is also one of the few nations to permit the creation of animal-human hybrids in the laboratory for research purposes. There are good reasons to be concerned about these matters. And, unfortunately, history shows us that other nations often use our bioethics laws as a template for their own. This is to our shame and their detriment.

It’s possible that this bad influence is largely independent of our belonging to the EU. So, if Brexit comes to pass, it is uncertain that bioethics policy in other countries will be entirely spared harmful British influence. Britain will still be influence bioethics for good or ill through a variety of other channels, including the bioethics journals, university departments and institutions it is the home to.

Britain has a lot going for it. Unfortunately, it seems that it is generally not a force for good on the bioethics world stage. Of course, it’s impossible to predict all the consequences of Brexit. But, at least when it comes to bioethics, Europe might be better off without Britain.

Posted by Toni Saad, a medical student and CMF member

Editor’s note: This blog post is an opinion piece. All our blog posts are reviewed by an editorial team, and our authors all write in a personal capacity. The views expressed are not necessarily those of CMF. We encourage interaction and debate so please feel free to contribute to the discussion.



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